Sept. 10, 2013
La Luz De La Tormenta/The Light of the Storm by Carlos Parada Ayala (112 pages, Zozobra Publishing, $12.00)
The Year of What Now by Brian Russell (96 pages, Graywolf Press, $15.00)
Trouble behind Glass Doors: Poems by Walter Bargen (103 pages, BkMk Press, $13.95)
A Raft of Grief: Poems by Chelsea Rathburn (72 pages, Autumn House Press, $17.95)
Poets still fall in love, but some also live in war zones and report on those conflicts. Carlos Parada Ayala writes of Central American wars, while Brian Russell’s battlefield is the oncology department. Walter Bargen and Chelsea Rathburn turn to domestic sites of tragedy.
Poems in Carlos Parada Ayala’s first book “La Luz De La Tormenta/The Light of the Storm” demand attention. His slashes of color create unforgettable images, like his comparison of love to “a bloody crucifix/on a bishop’s chest” (“Pulse”). Parada Ayala presents important topics that match his dramatic language. As an El Salvador native, he was witness to the 1970s to 1980s civil wars. This tragedy is the backdrop for this bilingual Spanish and English collection.
His poem “Whale” presents apocalyptic visions of destruction: “Palm trees crumble/like spent matchsticks” and “The sky explodes and shatters.” These images are both memories and continuing nightmares for the narrator, who awakens to find himself adrift in peacetime. What remains as he stands in the market is “an endless and vile melancholy.” Memories keep the war alive, years into the future.
The book illustrates war and, finally, recoveries. “Day of the Dead” is a poem that begins with despair but ends with optimism. Parada Ayala writes: “I carried my country on my back like a sack/full of ill-fated chapters.” He laments the common graves and “quetzal birds extinguished.” But the last stanza asserts: “Now I rise with my head held high,/carrying my country in the deepest part of my chest, a sanctuary for my people.” In a “Letras Latinas Blog” interview, the poet writes: “‘Day of the Dead’ is my prayer to keep up the hope.”
Parada Ayala shows how the effects of war last a lifetime, an important lesson as military initiatives continue across the globe.
Another kind of war is one within bodies, in the form of disease. Brian Russell’s first book “The Year of What Now” recounts a battle with cancer. The book explains how the measured world of medical violence is as unsettling as any other. The narrator watches in horror as painful procedures become routine. Anyone touched by ravages of cancer treatment can relate to this sequence.
Russell shows how the hospital world has its own rules of engagement. In “Tepid” the narrator states, “I still can’t bring myself to watch/them stick the needle in your back.” He compares the patient to “the tortured trunk of a wind ravaged tree” with “ashen limbs.”
Russell’s book, nonetheless, is not dreary. The caretaker elicits admiration. Gallows humor eases pain. The narrator compares cafeteria dining with a chain restaurant down the road, “where the food is equally inedible,” and the jab at institutional food is an easy joke. Also, the normalcy of “wonderfully obnoxious” families is unexpected respite from slow grief.
To spoil the ending, the treatments are successful. In “You’re Welcome” the narrator writes, “you’re not dying/faster than the rest of us,” and so the book’s narrative shifts from crisis to commentary about everyone’s eventual death.
A further spoiler: the narrative is contrived, not autobiography, despite the eye-witness perspective. In an interview with Graywolf Press editor Jeff Shotts, Russell describes his inspiration: “I see the husband and wife as homages to people in my life who have been altered by serious illness. While many poems draw from lived experience, the work as a whole is one of the imagination.” Russell’s inventiveness and his heart make him a poet to remember.
“Trouble behind Glass Doors” is Walter Bargen’s sixteenth book of poetry. He excels at anecdotal verse, where incidents that could be coffee group stories expand into larger moments. The most arresting of these poems are masterpieces about crimes and other domestic wars experienced as daily news.
“Neighbors” is one of the most chilling. It begins “When a neighbor shows up at his door/Wearing a black ski mask, carrying something large /And automatic . . . .” The rest of the story can be extrapolated from a newspaper front page. In this particular story, one faction imprisons the other in a nightmarish replay of the Holocaust.
In Bargen’s poem “Overdose,” he notes how “hardly anyone/bothers to look up from their newspapers,” as a drug user creates a scene in a mall. Bargen shows how a perfectly ordinary setting can turn sinister. In this public square, jaded crowds avoid engagement.
Bargen is Missouri’s first poet laureate, and the volume includes some autobiographical poems from that experience. In “Poet as Grand Marshall of the Fall Parade,” the unathletic poet contrasts his odd public role with that of a celebrity sports figure. He considers adding football pads to his suit. Even such lighter poems have an edge of social critique, as Bargen shows how banal Midwestern communities have misplaced values. These accompany a culture of violence.
Chelsea Rathburn, in “A Raft of Grief,” finds personal struggles can be stark, inner battles as she writes about alcoholism and divorce. The poet uses many tricks of poetic language to create safe distance from anguish.
“Sweet Nothings” is about women telling tales on past lovers. They find “the old wounds feel a little softer/with a laugh track, so the stories keep coming.” Reminiscences about “Italian lingerie,” pillow talk, and a dominatrix role entertain the group. The humor evaporates, however, as one notes: “‘he said he owned/me for the hour—they only play at giving up control.’” The see-saw of Rathburn’s poetic lines emphasizes the dramatic momentum of anger.
The poet uses a “laugh track” again in “This Poem Has Had Too Much to Drink.” At first, the extended comparison is slapstick: “This poem can’t talk to strangers/until after the third gin and tonic” and “This one fell into a bush at the party.” Finally, as the narrative arc reaches conclusion, the problems continue in new form: “This poem is in recovery and can’t stop talking about it.” This is one of many inventive, fresh approaches in the book.
One of the last poems, “The Mother of Beauty, Etc.,” has a striking image that recapitulates the dangers of amour. A couple kiss in the woods, until they realize a nearby “white shape watching” is a deer’s skull. Life and death intertwine, as they find themselves “studying the bones” rather than each other.
Rathburn has a sure voice, one that will continue to be heard, like those of these other poets who look beyond confections of simple love poems.
Denise Low, Kansas City Star